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Is your boss a clown? Maybe that’s a good thing…

Good comedians, like good leaders, manage how others perceive them. They’re consistent, they have a presence and they're aware of the importance of every signal they send

Just like comedians, good leaders know how to work together and build on the ideas of others

In a coaching session the other day my client referred to his boss as a “clown”. He didn’t mean it as a compliment but it got me thinking that, actually, good clowns, or rather comedians, have a lot to teach leaders.

Good comedians know how to read a room – they don’t perform any old material. Instead, they research the audience and they start from there. 

If they realise things aren’t going well or there’s a surprise, they’ll often acknowledge it and consider changing direction or trying something new.

This is a good thing in leadership – as long as it’s not happening all the time. One u-turn shows you learn, but too many and you’re clearly making bad decisions or not capable of executing them correctly. 

Good comedians have a presence – you may not like them but you know they’re there and they’re in charge of the room. And although some people have a natural presence most of us have to grow into the “role” we’re playing and the presence it requires. Presence means you’re noticed. People pay attention. 

And once they’re paying attention, good comedians use the voice they have developed over time to bring us on an emotional journey.

They make us laugh, of course, but they also make us angry and scared and curious and a gamut of other emotions. Leaders need to be able to do this if they want others to follow them and act in ways that the leader needs. 

But that voice needs to be developed. New comedians often try on lots of different personas as they build their act or “role”, but eventually they make a decision. They take a particular point of view, talk about particular issues and are known for certain behaviours.

And good comedians also embrace their natural traits – being Irish or female or bald or tall, whatever – and use these to bring their own particular focus.

They know that not everybody will like them but they trust that the people who do will turn up and laugh. Leaders who are afraid of being unpopular are going to find themselves unsuccessful: you have to stand for something. 

Good comedians are consistent – they have “bits” and you know what you’re getting. If you bought tickets for Michael McIntyre and Frankie Boyle turned up, you’d be upset and confused. Trust me, inconsistency in leaders creates the same problems in the workplace. 

Clowns also know how to work together – whether in improvisation troupes or on a panel show – good comedians build on the ideas of others, often circling back and constructing a brand new joke on the back of something said earlier. 

And when one clown gets out of line, for example jumping on a colleague’s punchline, the others will often draw attention to this bad behaviour and make sure the peer pressure is sufficient to rein them back in. 

Good comedians, like good leaders, manage how others perceive them. They’re aware of the importance of every signal they send – the clothes they wear, their body language, the language they choose to use, their facial expressions – and use these to manage how people feel about them and what they’re saying. 

There’s a lot we can learn from the clowns. The best comedians get us thinking about a subject, expose us to a new way of looking at it, and move us to some kind of action. Surely that’s what leadership is?

Dawn Metcalfe is a workplace culture advisor, trainer and public speaker